Erik ten Hag admitted Manchester City’s frightening array of attacking talent contributed to his decision to select a more defensive line-up for Saturday’s Manchester derby.
The United manager has masterminded an impressive run of form which has seen the Red Devils claw their way back into Champions League qualifying contention and look unrecognisable from the side that were hammered 6-3 by the reigning Premier League champions back in October.
Scarred by that defeat, Ten Hag opted to recall Fred, who hadn’t started a Premier League game since mid-October, to his midfield engine room and shunt Bruno Fernandes out to the right wing in place of summer signing Antony who had scored in each of United’s last two matches.
Asked about what, on paper, looked a more conservative team selection, Ten Hag told BT Sport: ‘You have to respect opponent but also play your own game. But you can’t ignore it, every opponent you have to face and take account of their capabilities.’
Former City defender Joleon Lescott highlighted the importance of City’s midfield maestro Rodri and Ten Hag revealed he had made specific plans to deal with the Spain international.
He added: ‘Definitely. He is the key player in building up and organising the team.’
Ten Hag’s decision to persist with Luke Shaw at centre-half also raised eyebrows, with World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez again having to make do with a place on the bench.
Shaw, who has spent the entirity of his career at left-back, has impressed in an unfamiliar role in recent weeks and Ten Hag is confident the England international, in tandem with Raphael Varane was capable of coping with the threat of the division’s top scorer Erling Haaland.
He said: ‘It’s always team first but there are players who are in particular responsible for that and that starts with the centre halves.
‘We have two very good, very capable centre halves who are experienced in positional play and anticipating but still they need the team to do the job. If the rest isn’t defending properly you can get get exposed.’
Expanding on his decision to relegate Martinez to the bench after his performance against Charlton in the Carabao Cup, he added: ‘He didn’t play that many games in the last four weeks.
‘Charlton was the first time he played 90 minutes. This is a real, big game. We need him today but we will see at what point.
‘Of course he can contribute to this back four and we can put him on.
‘It is more than Erling Haaland. We have to defend a lot of good players from them. The most important thing is to play our game and on the ball show belief, go forward as much as possible.’
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